Paying obeisance to Adi Sankara

A procession of caparisoned elephants.

A procession of caparisoned elephants.  

WHATEVER BE the clash among historians about the chronology of Adi Sankara's birth (510 B.C. or 788 A.D.), there is no two strains of thought about his nativity - that the great spiritual colossus was born into a Namboodiri family in Kerala in a village called Kalady. Diverse faiths have established the authenticity of such a statement with many a recorded evidence.

That the very name `Sankara' was carved out of that particular time, date, day and astrologic year of birth along with the Hindu zodiacal system which is relevant to date in the Indian almanac, is an established fact. Invariably the month coincides with May every year and the jayanthi (birthday of great spiritual leaders) is celebrated in many parts of India including Kalady in keeping with the place and populace.

Never in history (either hearsay or documented) had Sankara Jayanthi been performed at Kalady in such an eloquent manner as on May 6, 2003 (Swabhanu- Vaishaka shukla Panchami).

It was a once-in-lifetime event to all those who converged there to witness and participate in the celebrations which were on for four days with homams (sacred fire), vedic chantings, poojas and classical music recitals rounding off the evenings (music is considered an offshoot of Sama Veda, hence its pre-eminent position in any religious offering).

Modest little Kalady got transformed into a centre of hectic activity with hosts of priests, patrons, artists and onlookers bustling in and out of its narrow winding lanes. Since there was a ban on Adi Sankara during his lifetime from entering or living in Kalady because of his insistence to cremate and go through the obsequies of his mother (against the sanyasin code of conduct) by the Namboodiris of his time, the subsequent acharyas of his lineage also follow the dictum and do not camp in the place to this day.

Hence, the two pontiffs of the Kanchi (puram) Kamakoti Peetam, Jayendra Saraswati and Sankara Vijayendra Saraswati set site at Perambavoor, an adjacent municipality. While Perambavoor poured with piety, with people paying homage to the elder and younger pontiff, Kalady abounded with an air of busy activity in the premises of the Keerthi Mandapam (a spiral edifice whose inner walls unfold picturesque details of Adi Sankara's life and philosophy erected by the Kanchi math, way back in memory of the great sage). Even as the evening air got moist with melodious notes floating from Kanya Kumari's violin and Kadri's saxophone, Srinivas' mandolin magnetised the listeners making all the three days melt away like mist in the morning sun.

On May 6, the Keerthi Mandapam wore a special festive look . About 150 hermits from across the length and breath of the country made it to Kalady on the invitation of the Kanchi seers to participate in the festivities. The acharyas of the Puri Math also made it a point to be present at the ordained time (11 a.m., said to be the birth time of Adi Sankara) where a brief on his life was recited in Sanskrit, culminating in the ``poorna aahuti'' at the "homa gundam", denoting total obeisance to the sacred fire - a ritualistic feature of the "Shata Chandi homam". The evening homage to the great propounder of the "Advaita marga" (path) in the Hindu philosophical thought was like a royal salutation in the traditional Kerala style. A procession led by the present Peetadhipathi of Kanchipuram, Sankara Vijayendra Saraswati, chanting holy hymns walked all the way from Angamali (15-20 kms ahead of Kalady) to the Keerthi Mandapam venue with the tail end being led by 32 caparisoned elephants regally following the leader (elephant) who carried a picture of Adi Sankara on its head. It was like an elephant brigade with no single animal falling out of step.

Parallel to the happenings at the Keerthi Mandapam, there was a similar festival being organised at the Sringeri Math close by, - where Adi Sankara's dwelling, nestled close to the Poorna river (now Periyaar) was identified and developed by the Sringeri sect of Shankaracharyas. Supported by the Sringeri Peeta, poojas and cultural programmes were also organised with gusto, though on a much smaller scale. The sight of the Poorna river taking a curve just at the last flight of steps leading from the then abode of Adi Sankara on his request to the river to facilitate his mother Aryamba carry her water pots for daily rituals and house work is indeed mind-boggling.

A number of memorable sites attributed to Adi Sankara with documented evidence are in and around Kalady, making it worthwhile to step on that part of the land where the matchless Bhagavatpada (Adi Sankara) had left his footprints in the sands of time. One such place was the "illam" of one P.S Narayanan Namboodiripad, aptly called Ponnor kottu mana (golden home) in keeping with its historical tale attributed to Adi Sankara.

Placed in Pazham Thottam in Kumarapuram (Alwaye), this grand edifice looks inviting, awesome and deserted despite a family living in it. The story goes that as a young brahmacharin, Sankara - the boy, was said to have gone on begging for food from door to door. At one such house, the inmate, a lady in penury, was in great distress of having to offer the last of an `amalaka' (gooseberry) pickle piece to the spotless Sankara.

Moved on seeing her in tears, it is said that Sankara recited the Kanakadhara Stotram in praise of the goddess of wealth who immediately showered golden gooseberries on the poor hut making the lady instantly wealthy. A part of the land encircling this architecturally beautiful huge house has been sold to a trust which has chalked out a plan with a capital inlay of Rs. 65 lakh to build a temple to goddess Mahalakshmi, a "gaana mantapa" and a "veda patashala".

The Namboodiri illam with its rosewood inlaid work is a thing of beauty to behold with its typical open inside courtyards, pools, in-house temple, ancient, antique painting and furniture, its carved wooden granary and its lush green surroundings that wore a wild look.The Malayattur hill, now housing the St Thomas Church, is proved to be the same hillock where Adi Sankara's parents had lived for sometime.

The Shivalinga found within the church is still in existence according to the present Rector. One Father Sebastian had done immense research on Adi Sankara, testifying to his presence on the hill, at some period during his lifetime. Adi Shankaracharya is a national phenomenon beyond the realms of narrow religious definitions by virtue of his recorded travails across the entire country from the Himalayas to the tip of the sub-continent. Hence, it did not come as a surprise that in his mother state of Kerala he was looked upon by one and all, irrespective of individual faiths, as the son of their soil, which till date makes them proud.


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